Letter signatories deserve Faculty Senate response on Markingson case

The Faculty Senate will consider an extraordinary plea this Thursday. More than 170 scholars in biomedical research, health law and medical ethics have asked the Senate to endorse an external inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dan Markingson.

Markingson was a mentally ill young man who killed himself in an industry-funded psychiatric research study at the University of Minnesota in 2004.

University officials have responded to the suicide with, as these scholars put it, a “near-complete denial of any problems.”

This is its reaction despite troubling evidence that Markingson was coerced into the study while mentally incapable of giving informed consent — and then kept in the study for months, even as his mother repeatedly warned officials that Markingson was in serious danger of killing himself.

The signers addressed the letter to members of the Faculty Senate and included the chair, President Eric Kaler, and vice chair Eva von Dassow.

There was a good reason for sending the letter to the Senate. The University administration has failed to deal honestly with the Markingson case.

 In a Nov. 12 response to the letter, University General Counsel William Donohue wrote, “We do not believe that further review is warranted.” Case closed.

In our experience, anyone asking questions about the Markingson case can expect exactly this response. No matter whom the question is directed to — the Faculty Senate, the Board of Regents, Kaler or even the supposedly independent University research integrity officer — the answer inevitably comes back from the Office of the General Counsel.

Its reply is some variant of the following: This is an old case that has been repeatedly investigated, and we have been exonerated of blame.

In fact, it’s precisely because of the inadequacy of the Office of General Counsel’s supposed “investigations” that these scholars have requested an external independent review.

Nor are these all old issues from the distant past.

As a result of public advocacy about the Markingson case, nearly a dozen people have contacted us, claiming that they or their family members have suffered abuses while enrolled in psychiatric clinical studies.

Many describe experiences similar to what Dan Markingson endured.

Of course, we cannot be sure that these claims have merit. But if even a fraction of them prove credible, the University is facing a major research scandal.

The scholars asking for an investigation are not wild-eyed opponents of medical research. They come from elite academic institutions: Harvard University, the University of Oxford, Stanford University, Duke University, Penn State, Tufts University, McGill University and the University of Toronto.

Many of them hold endowed chairs. Two are former editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the most influential medical publication in the world. Quite a number are either University alumni or current faculty members.

They deserve to be taken seriously.

We urge the Faculty Senate to do the right thing Thursday and ask for an external inquiry.

Lives may well depend on it.